Monday, August 31, 2015

Perils of the Writer: Characters Who Are Not Like Me

Over at SFSignal, I contributed to the Mind Meld on Obscure Books, where I talk about Arthur Byron Cover's Planetfall.  One thing I don't mention over there is the very important thing Planetfall did for me as a reader, and as a result, a writer.
The main character of the book Planetfall is Lt. Homer B. Hunter, essentially the everyperson "you" from the games Planetfall and Stationfall.  In those games, as it was with many* of the Infocom games, there were no defining characteristics of who "you" were, so every and any player could self-insert themselves to the situation.
Thus, when I first read Planetfall, from the start I thought of Lt. Homer B. Hunter as "me".  Which was kind of a strange thing to do, but it seemed to make sense at the time.  But about a third of the way through the book, something very unexpected happened.
Lt. Homer B. Hunter was black.
As a teenager, I found that jarring, even shocking.  For a moment, I was just stuck.  I re-read the passage multiple times, to make sure I had it right, that it wasn't a mistake.  My brain hit a wall for a moment, thinking it couldn't be right.
It took me a bit to confront in myself why I felt it couldn't be right: because I had made presumptions based on my experience, what it was supposed to be for me.  But the world had no obligation to live up to my presumptions, nor was it obliged to give me characters that were just like me.
It's not a major revelation, but for a suburban white kid in the late 80s, it was quite a bridge to cross.  I could have stayed stuck on it, just hitting the wall, feeling the book had been dishonest with me or some bullshit like that.  Instead, I embraced my new understanding of the character and kept going.
Not a major revelation, but an important one to make at that age: it was totally all right to read characters who were not like me.
In retrospect, I wonder if that was part of Cover's clever plan: to create a character that readers would put themselves into, allowing readers like me plenty of time to make presumptions before showing them the truth.  Which is a pretty subversive thing to do in tie-in fiction for a computer game.
So, a few years later, when I read Tom Robbins Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas, a very odd book written in Second Person where "you", the main character of the book, are an uptight 28-year-old Filipina stockbroker named Gwen, I didn't even blink.
And that brings me to the writing.  I know I'm not a writer that will inspire anyone to go, "Oh, wow, look at that incredible diversity in race and gender in his work!"  Maradaine is a city that fits in a psuedo-European mold, for the most part.  I am trying to do things with race that I don't think I've seen too much of in fantasy fiction, and I may screw it up.  That's a given.  This review for Thorn seems to have caught some of what I'm going for, so I'm hopeful that it's coming through.  But I definitely think the early revelation that Planetfall gave me helped put me on a path to be able to write a character like Kaiana.  And writing scenes with Kai are possibly one of my favorite things to do.
In the meantime, I keep working, digging through the word-mines, and trying not to screw-up.  See you down there.
*- Some of the games had an in-game method of identifying your gender, and then the game would treat you as that gender for the rest of the game.  Leather Goddesses of Phobos, for example, starts with your character needing to use the restroom, and which one you choose locks your gender in.

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